Thursday, May 24, 2012

Don't Smother Your Mother!

Vinegar "Mother" on table at Master Food Preserver Class, May 2012.
"Don't smother your mother!"

This is a phrase I never expected to utter except when trying to keep my children from burying me at the bottom of their dog pile.

It turns out to be crucial advice for making homemade vinegar as well.

I'd never thought much about vinegar before learning about it in my Master Food Preserver class.  In my mind, vinegar came in three categories-- white, red, and apple cider (with the later being my favorite.)  I knew that within these three categories individual vinegar quality ranged from disgusting to sublime.  I knew that vinegar is used to make salad dressing, pickles, and to clean dirty windows.

What I didn't know was the fact that vinegar is alive (or at least it came from a living source) and that it's the result of one of two processes-- either distillation or the magical process known as fermentation.

There are far more varieties of vinegar than I'd ever considered before-- including fruit vinegars, malt and beer vinegars, balsamic vinegars, sherry vinegars, and Asian vinegars (tamari and soy.)

Vinegar is composed of acetic acid, water, and a number of vitamins and other compounds that come from the source of the sugar from which it's made.  

Making vinegar via fermentation is a multi-step process.  Fruit-based vinegars require wild yeasts to convert the sugar in the fruit into alcohol.  In a starch-based vinegar, the starch is first converted to sugar and then the sugar is converted into alcohol.  The bacteria acetobacter aceti then converts the alcohol into acetic acid in the presence of oxygen.  The resulting product is vinegar.

Making vinegar at home requires three basic ingredients:
1.  Alcohol
2.  Oxygen
3.  Bacteria (acetobacter aceti)

Although it is possible (even preferable) to make delicious vinegar at home, you cannot be sure of it's acidity.  Homemade vinegar is great for salad dressing and marinades, but should not be used for canning or pickling, which requires using vinegar with a confirmed acid content of at least 5%.

That said, making vinegar at home is surprisingly easy.  As long as you have a "mother".

The mother is any vinegar that contains live bacteria.  If you feed it, the mother will continue to grow (as long as you don't smother it by adding too much alcohol to the mother at one time.)  Eventually, a thin film will form on top of the mother (this is cellulose).  It will thicken and eventually sink to the bottom of the container in which you keep it.  A mother that sinks is affectionately referred to as a "dead mother".

Of course the "dead mother" is not actually dead.  It is, in fact, very much alive and can be used as the starter for a new batch of vinegar.

What WILL kill your mother is pasteurization.  Most commercially produced vinegars are pasteurized to stop the growth of bacteria.  But you can buy live vinegars-- like Bragg apple cider vinegar-- and it can be used as a starter for making more vinegar.

I was given the gift of a small "mother" from the MFP graduate/instructor Karen Hobart during our class on vinegar-making.  I was told not to disturb the mother-- unless she was ready to eat.  My mother was a red wine mother, but Karen told me that I could feed my mother with white wine and eventually my mother would change color.

I found this idea intriguing so I decided to try it.  I've fed my red-wine mother with white wine once since I got it several weeks ago.  Sadly, I failed to follow Karen's instructions and mark the date of the feeding on the side of the jar.  I'm supposed to feed it every 1 1/2 to 2 weeks and I'm pretty sure it's due to be fed again soon.  At least it looks like it's ready.

I'm still in the midst of discovering the best way to make homemade vinegar so I'm not yet ready to put my process down in writing.  Until that day comes, check out this link to a great presentation about making vinegar from Mississippi State University.  It's a great place to start researching the process of vinegar-making.

If you're already an experienced vinegar-maker, I'd love to hear from you and swap stories about smothered mothers.  I haven't done this.  Yet.